Jose Luis Magana / AP
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019.
Thursday, March 28, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: The political rift stemming from Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial comments about Israel and Jews loomed large this week during the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, prompting concerns that America’s traditional bipartisan support for Israel could be fraying. Against that backdrop, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took the stage to call for a unified approach to U.S.-Israel relations and bipartisan condemnation of anti-Semitism. We feel Schumer did an excellent job of outlining the issue, and offered a constructive and positive way forward. Today, we offer edited excerpts of Schumer’s speech, which the Senate minority leader opened by discussing a recent addition to his family — a grandson, Noah Melvin Schumer-Shapiro.
As I reflect on my growing family, I can’t help but think of what kind of society we’re going to leave to the next generation and the generation after that. Tonight, I wish to speak personally about my support for Israel, the need to maintain a strong bipartisan relationship and the very real threats the Jewish communities across the globe are facing.
The security of Israel is and has always been in America’s national interest, but I fear too many of our younger generation don’t have the same understanding of the threats facing Israel as my generation did. They don’t know that as long as Israel has existed, she has had to defend herself from enemies who seek to wipe her off the map. That’s a fundamental problem we must confront head-on.
Now, that’s certainly not true here at AIPAC. Our young people know the story and the importance of Israel and I know that there are several thousand students here tonight. Students, stand up, let us applaud you for being here and helping the cause of Israel. We need you and love you. But we know that this problem of ignorance about Israel’s difficult history still persists at too large a scale, particularly among young people.
And so it’s incumbent on us to explain that history to every single member of the younger generation, Jew and non-Jew alike. We must remind them, teach them that threats to Israel are not just in the past, but very much in the present and the future. My friends, when I think of my grandson Noah who was born at a time when Israel is stronger than ever, I think about what I’ll tell him when he’s old enough to understand.
I’ll tell Noah that as a young man, in James Madison High School, I remember walking to class with a transistor radio to my ear, of course, I’ll have to explain to him what a transistor radio is, listening to the news reports that June about the Six-Day War praying to HaShem that Israel wouldn’t be washed into the sea.
I’ll tell Noah that there was a great and articulated Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Abba Eban who bravely came to lecture at my college while the SDS-PLP was waging a campaign against, “Zionist imperialists” saying Israel had no right to exist and how, when the SDS-PLP tried to shout them down, Abba Eban, in his beautiful Etonian tones, said, you, and he pointed to them in the balcony, certainly cheer when anyone else gets a state, but you do not cheer when the Jewish people achieve their dream of a homeland.
And the anti-Zionists slinked out in shame. I’ll tell Noah that as an adult, I watched my grandfather, Noah’s great-grandfather, one of the few in his larger family to survive the Holocaust because he was lucky enough to come to America, become overwhelmed by emotion and break down in tears when he saw Eretz Yisrael for the first time.
And I’ll tell Noah, just like many of you will tell your children and grandchildren over Pesach that this is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt and every generation they have tried to afflict us. Now, of course, being Jews, we’ve even found levity in that painful history by summarizing the all-Jewish holidays with three short sentences.
This is how they summarize each — we summarize our holidays, they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Thank God, my friends, we live in America where our people have had every opportunity to survive and thrive and thank God that after two millennia of wandering the desert, the Jewish people were finally able to return to the land of milk and honey, Eretz zavat chalav udevash where they can live in freedom and raise families in relative peace.
There’s no question the Jewish people have come a long way in the past 70 years, but I still feel a great deal of anxiety, as I know all of you do in this room, looking at a world today where threats to the Jewish people in the land of Israel are growing and have been for some time.
So we must remind all young people that Hezbollah still can and wants to send rockets into Israel bringing death and destruction to civilians, that Hamas still builds tunnels on Israel’s southern border to kidnap and kill and that the Iranian regime still plots to undermine Israel in every way. Anyone, young or old, who thinks these threats to Israel aren’t real should just read today’s newspaper.
Just this morning a rocket from Hamas-controlled Gaza struck and destroyed a home north of Tel Aviv in Mishmeret injuring several people, including two infants. Our prayers are with them. Hamas said the rocket this morning was sent, they said, by mistake. They made the same claim two weeks ago when two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv.
And what about the barrage of rockets that Hamas fired into Sderot just a few hours ago? Were those a mistake too? Israel has every right to respond just as any other nation, including our own would. Some voices will condemn Israel for responding, but no government can allow its civilians to be subject to rocket attack time and time again and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Israel condemning those attacks and doing what they must to defend their homeland.
Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, none of these enemies darkening Israel’s door believe that a Jewish state, in any form, should exist. We must never forget that. And my friends, to do all this, we must keep the U.S.-Israel relationship bipartisan. We can only hope to defend Israel — yes, bipartisan, both parties side by side. We can only hope to defend Israel from these threats just so long as we maintain a united front, Democrats and Republicans together.
This has been a mission for me. I’m proud that the overwhelming majority of Democrats are pro-Israel and have always been. Let me give you some examples. Just from this past Congress, because Democrats in the Senate strongly support Israel, Democrats overwhelmingly, almost to a person, supported the memorandum of understanding enshrining American military and security assistance to Israel for years to come.
We’re reminded of the importance of that support whenever rockets are indiscriminately fired at civilians. The Iron Dome System that helps shoot those missiles out of the sky exists in part due to the longstanding bipartisan support of Congress. Democrats overwhelmingly supported a mission of mine, the Taylor Force Act, which prevents American dollars from benefiting the Palestinian Authority until they stop payments to those who commit brutal acts of terror.
Every single Democrat, every single one of the caucus signed a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations expressing concern about their vicious anti-Israel bias and Democrats united unanimously supported the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act. Now, it happened to be blocked by a Republican senator, but it would be wrong to say he represents the entire Republican Party and I never will.
Not only is it demonstratively false to say Democrats are anti-Israel, it also hurts the Israel-U.S. relationship. Plain and simple, the Democratic party supports Israel, and we will continue to do so and we will maintain that bipartisan relationship through thick and thin. Israel depends on it.
So whenever I led a piece of pro-Israel legislation, even in the days when Democrats had a vast majority, those were the days, I always included a Republican lead sponsor, because the foundation of our relationship must remain bipartisan as it has been for decades. And I tell you this: Those who seek to use Israel as a means to scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States.
Our politics may be more polarized than ever, but it’s incumbent upon all of us who care about U.S.-Israel relationship to keep it bipartisan. We must pledge to one another that we will keep the polarization of Washington away from poisoning the bipartisan support that Israel has always enjoyed. My friends, we also must continue to stand firm against the BDS movement.
I have long-opposed the BDS movement publicly, privately and continuously, because its founders and too many of its supporters do not believe the Jewish people have a right to any state in their homeland, whatever its size and boundaries. We must be clear-eyed about the history of this BDS movement. I ask anybody who supports BDS or is considering supporting it, particularly young people who may be of good will, to remember the following and we, us, must make sure they know it.
Even before Israel came into existence, boycotts were used as a weapon of those who opposed the very existence of the Jewish state. During the ’20s and ’30s, Arab leaders organized boycotts of the Jewish community in Palestine calling for the picketing of Jewish-owned businesses and general strikes that devolved into violence.
And as soon as Israel came into existence, the Arab League instituted an official boycott of the fledgling nation and soon thereafter, a boycott of anyone who did business with Israel and then anyone who did business with anyone who did business with Israel. Some of you my age will remember in those days, we were so proud of Air France.
Every other airline boycotted Israel and wouldn’t fly there, but only Air France would fly to Israel. All the others were participating in the Arab boycott. We must never go back to the days when major companies boycott Israel as they did in the ’50s and ’60s. And more than 30 years would pass, because the Arab League boycott was broken by Egypt and still today there are nations that actively enforce a primary boycott of Israel.
BDS must be understood, first and foremost, as the next chapter of this troubled past. Make no mistake about it, BDS’ founders did not believe in any state of Israel and too many of its leading proponents, not all, but too many, want nothing more than for Israel to disappear. Look no further than the words of the movement’s founder, Omar Barghouti who said, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”
And he also said, “Jews are not a people.” Now, my personal experience has born this out. Whenever I speak and argue with those who most actively push BDS, I ask them a very simple question: Do you support a Jewish state? All too often, too many, not all, but many too many, will waffle or they’ll say no, they do not support a Jewish state.
That’s not a disagreement over policy, that’s not a disagreement over borders, it’s a disagreement over Israel’s very right to exist and we must never accept that kind of disagreement. So from the moment Israel drew her first breath until this very moment, Israel has long been threatened by boycott movements and I will always stand with Israel against those who seek to do her harm by boycott or by any other means.
Now, just as we must educate the world about the true origins of the BDS movement, so too are we called on to confront a greater and more ancient threat to the Jewish people, anti-Semitism. That poison, the same poison that chased countless Jewish people from Europe and killed so many who remained, the same poison that scattered the Jewish people to the winds and made us foreigners in our own countries, that same poison cannot be allowed to fester here.
In the last decade, there’s been a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe where it always seems to live and grow deep in the soil, but now in the past few years, there’s been a resurgence in America. Just last October, we watched in horror as the single-greatest massacre of Jews on American soil was perpetrated by an anti-Semitic, white supremacist terrorist in Pittsburgh.
Sadly, between 2016 and ’17, the U.S. saw the largest increase in harassment, vandalism and assault of Jews and Jewish institutions. I, like you, feel the same dread, the same alarm that past generations of Jews have felt when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and begins inevitably to walk hand-in-hand with violence against Jews.
When we read about Jewish cemeteries defaced by swastikas, when we watch white supremacists march down the street of a proud American city chanting, Jews will not replace us and burn it down outside a synagogue or when we hear about a man who walks into a kosher grocery in Paris to murder Jews, when we see or hear anti-Semitism, we have a solemn obligation not to hold our tongues or parse our language, but call it out with courage, with clarity.
When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out. When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you’re not loyal to America, we must call it out. When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out. When someone suggests that money drives support for Israel, we must call it out.
We are here because we support the only Jewish state in the world and because it’s in America’s interest to support Israel. Any suggestion to the contrary, whether made out of malice or ignorance is hurtful, it’s wrong. We cannot be afraid to say that it’s wrong and hurtful, but even more than that, these age-old anti-Semitic tropes are false and must renounce them.
You can be a Jew and care about Israel, and it doesn’t make you any less of an American. You can be a Jew and lobby for Israel, and it doesn’t make us any less of an American. It makes you a better American. You can be all at once, my friends, completely Jewish, completely pro-Israel and completely American and we are. That is what makes this country so exceptional.
To say anything otherwise is completely false, has no place in our public discourse. So we must call out anti-Semitism whenever we hear it from wherever it arises. It has become too prevalent in our politics to identify anti-Semitism only when it comes from political opponents. It will always be wrong to use anti-Semitism as a political weapon, always.
And let me tell you, if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism. So my friends, in conclusion, this matters a great deal.
The fact that today we must once again face down the ancient poison of anti-Semitism as a reminder of what Israel has meant to the Jewish people, it reminds me of what Israel meant to me long before my name ever appeared on a ballot, long before I ever thought of being an elected official, as a boy, I grew up hearing stories of my great-grandmother, the matriarch of our family, in 1941, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, then part of Galicia, they asked my grandmother to gather her children and their children on the porch of her home.
They said, you come with us. She said, we will not leave, and they gunned down all 17 of them from age 1 to age 81.
Now, as a proud grandfather myself of Noah, I carry with me the stories of five generations of Schumers, Schumers who did not escape the Shoah and those who did, including my grandparents, who, feeling persecution, found sanctuary on these wonderful shores where, because of the tolerance and openness and opportunity that courses through all American life, their grandson could stand before you as the highest elected Jewish official ever in America.
And I know you join me, we all cannot help but think we are the lucky ones, I know I’m not alone in bearing the weight of these generations and the painful history of our people. Each one of us has these stories, and it is because we carry with us the history we feel so deeply about the cause of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel.
It is because of this history that I want Israel to be always there, always prosperous, always strong, always free. My friends, we must never forget what Israel and her freedom mean to the Jewish people and what the friendship of the United States means to securing that freedom. As long as HaShem breathes air into my lungs, I will not forget, I know you will not forget and we will fight to protect the Jewish people here in America and in the state of Israel.
In America and in Israel, Am Yisrael chai, the people of Israel live. Thank you. God bless you. AIPAC, keep up the great work.
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